Experiences are judged by people in how well it met, failed or exceeded their expectations. An expectation is a vision of the future, and that vision is based on the information that is available to the individual.
This is equally true of a surprise birthday party, telling your boss you are resigning, or ringing customer service to get a problem resolved. Your ‘post event review’ will be coloured by the expectations that you had before you started.
‘That was better than I expected’, ‘I wasn’t expecting that’, ‘I can’t believe they said that to me’. The scale of human experience is effectively based on whether the rest of the world behaved the way you thought it would and, if not, whether the difference impressed or disappointed you.
People set their expectations by what they know in advance, as a human being you use the knowledge you gather to predict the future (including the memory of previous experiences). And while surprises can be good, in general the closer the future corresponds to our predictions the more content we are with the outcome.
To human beings everything is information, we gather knowledge all the time. It’s in our nature to try and make the future less ‘scary’ by hunting out clues to what will happen and then projecting our imaginations forward to create a vision of the future that we can use as a guide for our behaviour.
That future vision is expectation setting.
The colour of the walls, the smell of a building, the attitude of the staff, of other customers, it’s all information, all things we can use to flesh out our picture of the future, whether that is five minutes away or 5 years.
How that vision plays out and the expectations and emotions attached to it determines how people approach situations and their likely responses when their expectations are met, or not met, and how they will judge and subsequently describe their experience.
The highest value, and highest risk, customer experiences are where organisations and customers interact. Any interaction happens in an information context, information which, because we’re human, drives an emotional response, our feelings get involved. The quality of information either leads to positive feelings; confident, supported, smart or negative ones; frustrated, uncertain, anxious, concerned.
Broadly this is good news, because while experience is deeply individual, determined by the person that goes through an event and therefore cannot be controlled, you can control the information delivery.
Well designed information sets appropriate expectations and guides interactions. A series of well designed interactions (service design in other terms) generally delivers consistently positive customer experiences, good reviews and, of course, great business results.
Jay is Strategy Director at design agency Make it Clear, we make technology easier to use, engage with and understand. We help organisations improve customer interaction with products and services through clarity in design and communication, delivering better experiences at every touchpoint.